May 29, 2007

So little time…

Filed under: Anecdote — duncan @ 9:26 pm

It turns out it’s almost impossible to write one of these blogs while doing anything else in your life. Posts might become from now on a little more intermittent. (Possibly no bad thing.)

A couple of Churchill factoids. In the early years of the twentieth century Home Secretaries were obliged to write a letter to the monarch describing the parliamentary events of the day. This was a ridiculous anachronism: as Home Secretary Churchill wrote to George V, “He [Churchill] ventures however to point out that very excellent summaries of the debates, far better than he could write in the time and space available, appear in all the newspapers, and that the use of the Parly letter has greatly diminished from this modern cause.” But Churchill was stuck with the letters, so he approached them with his usual energy. Jenkins: “What he did was to pour out a stream of uninhibited consciousness interspersed with whatever aphorisms came into his mind as he went along.” E.g.: “Friday was consumed in a very thin discussion of the remaining Army Estimates required at the present. The House assumed that listless air which indicated that the questions of interest lay outside the debates. Captains and Majors talked mildly to each other and the other Members took refuge in the smoking rooms.” Or: “As for tramps and wastrels there ought to be proper Labour Colonies where they could be sent for considerable periods and made to realize their duty to the state… It must not however be forgotten that there are idlers and wastrels at both ends of the social scale.” The latter produced a perhaps predictable eruption of fury from the King.

Churchill is certainly never short of an aphorism. His best so far is reported by Asquith’s daughter Violet, who met the young Churchill at a dinner party. Churchill, after lapsing for many minutes into gloomy abstraction, began holding forth on the brevity of human life – and his determination to achieve great things. “We are all worms. But I do believe that I am a glow-worm.”

May 27, 2007

Thatcher. The strange ideological components of the ‘left’ and the ‘right’.

Filed under: Politics — duncan @ 6:43 pm

So not so long ago I read John Campbell’s excellent two volume biography of Thatcher. (“A triumph” says the Spectator. “A winner” says the Daily Mail.) A couple of nuggets and a question.

1) Of course I knew about arms to Iraq, but I’d somehow failed to grasp the full extent of the horror. I hadn’t realised, for example, that the Scott Inquiry, far from being an excoriating condemnation of the government, was in some respects a whitewash – because it restricted itself to events in Whitehall, when the heart of the scandal lay in the government’s lobbying for and subsidisation of the arms industry. Scott revealed the hypocrisy and deceit with which the government broke its own guidelines on arms sales – although he accepted, with what Campbell calls “tactful credulity”, Thatcher’s protestations of personal innocence. But he “entirely failed to investigate the network of informal connections between government, businesses and the security services which was the real motor of the secret arms trade in the 1980s.” It’s not just that Thatcher and her government secretly approved trade with regimes everyone knew to be murderous, and that were, according to the government’s own guidelines, off limits. Thatcher also subsidised these deals with public money, even as she refused to pay for public works in Britain on grounds of free-market small-government economics. One favourite method was to use the International Aid budget as a bargaining chip. In 1988 Thatcher personally negotiated a deal “without reference to the foreign office” whereby Britain financed, out of its aid budget, the construction of “an economically unviable and environmentally damaging hydroelectric power station in northern Malaysia in return for an agreement to buy British defence equipment… worth £1.3 billion.” The High Court eventually ruled the deal illegal. Another form of subsidisation was the Export Credit Guarantee Scheme. Purchasing countries were given credit, from the public purse, as an incentive to buy British weapons. This credit was not always made good. “Many of the arms supposedly purchased – by Jordan, Iraq and probably others – were never paid for at all. Even before the Gulf War intervened, Nicholas Ridley admitted that Iraq owed £1 billion and the true figure may have been nearer £2.3 billion.” In other words we didn’t just sell weapons to Iraq; we actually paid for many of them ourselves. AGGHHH!

2) Then there’s Thatcher’s bigotry or xenophobia. My favourite example comes from her time as Education secretary. “For some time the British Council had been working to create an exchange scheme whereby students in EEC countries would be able to spend a year, or a term, at a university in another member country, as part of their course…. Having agreed a pioneer scheme with the German Government, the Council assumed that DES approval would be a formality. They were staggered, therefore, when after a long delay Mrs Thatcher vetoed it on the ground that while the Government appreciated the benefit to foreign students studying in Britain she could see no reciprocal advantages to British students going abroad.” This is the insanity that would eventually tear the Conservative party to pieces, making it unelectable for nearly a decade. And it is one of the leitmotifs of Thatcher’s career. It’s not a style of statesmanship: it’s bigotry. And it’s crucial to Thatcher’s popularity. Much of her strength lay in her unreconstructed idea of Britain’s exalted position on the world stage. The historian George Urban recounts a Centre for Policy Studies lunch when Thatcher “felt she was among friends and could let her hair down. I was amazed to hear her uttering views about people and countries… which were not all that different from the Alf Garnett version of history.” Of her loathing for Germany Urban writes: “This was an ugly thing, known but to a few, and unmentionable in decent company.” On the campaign trail, in 1978, Thatcher cynically and candidly made clear her views. Many British people fear being “swamped by people of a different culture.” “If you want good race relations, you have got to allay people’s fears on numbers.” There must be “the prospect of a clear end to immigration.” After Enoch Powell’s notorious ‘River Tiber’ speech, she had advised Heath not to sack him. Privately she assured Powell that she was “strongly sympathetic” to his views.

3) And so my question. I realise it’s simplistic, and only holds within a certain political context – but I think it’s got some force. The question is: why (at least in the Western democracies with which I am familiar) does economic liberalism so often ally itself with social illiberalism, and vice versa?

Consider, if you will, the recent French elections. Why is it that the candidate who advocated an adoption of Anglo-American neoliberal economic policies (and who is now preparing to implement them) was also the candidate who controversially flirted with the racist rhetoric of Le Pen? Or consider the U.S.A: the Republican party is in general far keener on free-trade and far less protectionist than the Democrats, yet the Republican party is also the home of those noisy bigots insisting on zero tolerance for illegal immigrants, and on the erection of a giant wall (if possible electrified and machine-gun-armed) along the border with Mexico.

There are, of course, as many exceptions as you care to name. And these alignments certainly break down if you try to push them too far. There wasn’t much social tolerance in Soviet Russia, for instance; and the libertarian right is, at least in theory, maximally tolerant in every way. Still, these ideological clusters are dominant enough to have been enshrined in the way we talk about politics. When we speak of right-wing economic policies, we mean admiration for the free-market and distaste for large government. But when we speak of right-wing social views, we mean opposition to homosexuality, to abortion, distrust of immigrants, enthusiasm for capital punishment, and so on. A magazine like the Economist, proud to call itself ‘centre right’, is also happy to describe political organisations with no raison d’etre beyond racism as right wing, even if they belong on the ‘far right’. And this is probably the main reason why leftists like me are so suspicious of right wing economic doctrines that (if we’re honest) we don’t really understand – because those who propound them seem to be allied with the forces of homophobia, racism and misogyny.

Clearly things are just way more complex than this, and I’m writing from a pretty slanted ideological perspective. But the same question can be put from another perspective, if you appropriately redistribute the emotive rhetoric. Why do the disparate and apparently disjointed political commitments that make up what we call the ‘right’ and the ‘left’ so often go together?

I don’t have any kind of an adequate answer to this. It seems strange that I’ve never read anything that even directly addresses the question (though this is presumably just a function of my patchy reading). Anyway. It’s something to ponder.

A final Thatcher nugget. The endlessly entertaining Alan Clark (who is at least candid about his brutalism) records the dying hours of Thatcher’s premiership. Mortally wounded, “the Lady” is determined to fight on to the end. Clark writes in his diary: “the immediate priority is to find a way, tactfully and skilfully, to talk her out of standing a second time” (because if she’d fought the second round, Heseltine would have won). His method shows some genius. Campbell records that he “somehow managed to get in to see her.” Declaring (quite truthfully) his undying admiration, Clark says that Thatcher is certain to lose the next round, but that she should not let that stop her – she should go down fighting gloriously to the end. “After a pause in which she contemplated this Wagnerian scenario she said: ‘It’d be so terrible if Michael won. He would undo everything I have fought for.’” So perhaps, Campbell writes, Clark’s words of support had more effect than the arguments all those urging her to withdraw.

May 26, 2007


Filed under: Economics, Marx, Philosophy — duncan @ 3:49 pm

“With Adam Smith and Karl Marx, John Maynard Keynes… stands as one of three giant figures in the history of economics. As Smith can be viewed as the optimist of this trio, seeing economic improvement as the main consequence of capitalism; and as Marx can be viewed as the pessimist, believing that its many serious problems would cause capitalism to self-destruct; Keynes can be viewed as the pragmatic saviour of capitalism.”

This is Steven Pressman, in Routledge’s key guide to ‘Fifty Major Economists’. (I’m still on the pre-school stuff, as you can see). It’s as good a way as any of sketching the difference between these thinkers. But of course it’s wrong. One reason why: Marx isn’t a pessimist. On the contrary – it takes an almost pathological degree of optimism to believe that the destruction of capitalism, and the ushering in of a new socialist regime, will bring about a transformation not only of society, but of human nature. Marxism would be impossible without a wildly deluded cheerfulness.

Here’s Engels, writing to Marx about the allegedly impending world financial crisis. “The clouds gathering over the money market are sombre indeed. This time there’ll be a day of wrath such as had never been seen before: the whole of Europe’s industry in ruins, all markets over-stocked (already nothing more is being shipped to India), all the propertied classes in the soup, complete bankruptcy of the bourgeoisie, war and profligacy to the nth degree.” Joy. A childlike relish in destruction. A ridiculous utopianism. The apocalyptic and the utopian so often bedfellows. Consider Orwell’s account of Stephen Spender, looking out over the Blitz and declaring, with the confidence of a prophet, “it’s the end of capitalism.”

Marx’s optimistic embrace of destruction had effects at a personal level. Poverty is progress; wealth is death. Marx’s constant self-sabotage, his tireless drive to undermine his prospects, his will to destitution – these are ways of testing his resources; measuring his resilience. Dire circumstances bring out Marx’s ebullience, his energy, the sheer power of his cheerfulness.

This manifests as humour. Marx cracks gags. Marx is a hoot. We all know that Marx turned Hegel on his head (to see what fell out of his pockets). Humour is the most potent weapon in this project. Marx’s rerouting of absolute idealism into economic materialism is also the diversion of philosophical vocabulary into the mundane, the profane, the blasphemous, the funny. No great thinker has made such pervasive use of bathos. In 1967 Derrida wrote (in his essay on Bataille) that the only way to escape the synthesising power of Hegelian philosophy was with the shattering power of laughter. Marx already knew this. The movement from idealism to materialism is, in the most literal sense, a bringing down to earth.

“We abandoned our book to the gnawing criticism of the mice all the more cheerfully in that we had achieved our main purpose: self-clarification.” Impossible to disentangle here the strands of hubris, self-importance, self-mockery and capacious good humour. Marx is his own dialectic: debunking and rebuilding his philosophical ambitions, line by line. This is one reason why its so hard to extract his ideas without losing their genius.

We shouldn’t learn from this to discard the content of his work, and see Marx as a humourist. Nor (god help us) should we join the cloth-eared fraternity who don’t find Marx funny. We need to read Marx with our guts. He addresses himself to the body. His is not, contra Derrida, a spectral world. It is a world of quaking flesh.

“By means of an ingenious system of concealed plumbing, all the lavatories of London empty their physical refuse into the Thames. In the same way every day the capital of the world spews out all its social refuse through a system of goose quills, and it pours out into a great central paper cloaca —the Daily Telegraph.” Toilet humour and capitalism. The Hegelian motif of incorporation; the capitalist motif of consumption: both neglect their corollary: expulsion, evacuation. Marx, like Joyce, brings high culture into the lavatory.

I have nothing worthwhile to say about Friedman

Filed under: Friedman, Uncategorized — duncan @ 3:37 pm

I’m reading Friedman’s ‘Capitalism and Freedom’. It is simplistic and foolish; but the issues it raises are profound, and I’m not capable of adequately addressing them.

This is how foolishness wins.

This is how evil wins.

My experience of reading: every line opens up a library to study; every chapter demands a life’s work of response. Impossible! Impossible!

The result: all one’s dreams and desires get crammed into the little one is capable of saying.

Friedman’s thesis: that capitalism and political freedom go hand in hand.

Friedman is brutally unclear about what ‘political freedom’ means.

I have so little to say; but I’ll say this (the obvious):

If you are poor, you are not free.

Friedman writes: because capitalist exchange is voluntary, capitalism does not coerce.

But poverty coerces. We will do anything for food. The entrepreneur employs the starving, and everyone is free.

We are free, with blood on our hands.

We are free, with blood on our faces.

God knows there are other difficulties with Friedman’s thesis. But ‘freedom’ is not an concept that admits of simple analysis.

May 22, 2007

Toward a Derridean Economics

Filed under: Economics, Philosophy — duncan @ 7:16 pm

Derrida is such an important figure for me that I’m uncomfortable writing about him with the glibness of a blog. But I chose to write a blog, largely because it permits glibness. So I’ll deal with it.

Derrida’s most notorious soundbite (from ‘Of Grammatology’, page 158) is, of course, “there is nothing outside of the text” (“il n’y a pas de hors-texte”). Perhaps a better formulation of the same idea comes earlier in the Grammatology (p. 49): “The thing itself is a sign.” Here is the American philosopher Henry Staten (also a canonical figure for me), explaining how to read this phrase:

“’The thing itself is a sign’ does not mean ‘there isn’t really any ‘thing itself’’; nor does it mean ‘the thing is really all in your mind’; nor ‘there are really only words – we can’t get outside of words’. It means approximately this: ‘Let us consider the experience of what we call ‘things themselves’ as structured more like the experience of signs than like the experience of an idealized ‘full presence’.” (The quote is from page 58 of Staten’s first book, ‘Wittgenstein and Derrida’ – purchasable at Amazon at the bargain price of $25.)

I have no desire to align myself with either Derrida or Staten here. I have considerable sympathy for the accusation so often and so lazily levelled at deconstruction: that it is a culpably irresponsible form of linguistic idealism. I want to defend Derrida against his Neanderthal critics, but I’m weary of the debates surrounding his work, and I’m willing to give succour to the enemy in the hope, if not the confidence, that intelligence will prevail.

So: The thing itself is not a sign. There is something outside of the text. But even if we insist on this, we still have much to learn from Derrida.

The key contrast in the passage I’ve just quoted is between the idea of a sign and the idea of ‘full presence’. Let me try to summarise the argument in the crudest possible way.

A sign is always, by definition, a substitute for something else. Its purpose is to direct our attention to something beyond it. A sign is thus (to use the loaded vocabulary that Derrida analyses) parasitic, derivative, or supplementary.

By contrast, the thing itself seems to have a secure independent substance. It does not depend on anything else for its meaning or content. It is self-sufficient. This is what Derrida calls ‘presence’. A sign only has meaning because the thing it represents is absent. The thing itself, on the other hand, requires no absence to give it content; it is ‘fully present’.

This is the traditional picture of the relationship between sign and object. But Derrida has no truck with it. Derrida believes that all the properties traditionally ascribed to signs are also possessed by things themselves. For our purposes, the argument can be put like this:

A sign is a substitute for an object. When the object is absent, the sign can stand in its stead. There is a relation of partial equivalence between them.

But this relation of equivalence necessarily runs both ways. If a sign can be substituted for an object, the object can be substituted for the sign. And if the thing itself is, in certain circumstances, equivalent to a non-self-sufficient sign, then the thing itself cannot be said to be fully self-sufficient.

In other words, as soon as we refer to an object, that object is implicated in the network of substitutions that is our symbol system, and we can no longer refer to an absolutely self-sufficient object outside of all symbol-systems. Indeed – it is impossible to refer to an absolute ‘outside’ of our symbol systems at all. (Though it is of course still possible to refer to the outside of any given symbol – that’s what a symbol is.)

This is a tinkertoy version of Derrida’s argument – please don’t think I’m doing him justice. But even in this dumbed-down version, its easy to see the relevance of it all for economics.

Consider, for example, the relation between the ‘real’ and the ‘money’ economies. The standard definition of money is ‘a medium of exchange and a store of value’. Both aspects of this definition suggest that money is derivative or parasitic. Money is a symbol. Commodities are the things themselves that we can purchase with our symbols.

This is, I suppose, correct as far as it goes. But if we take this distinction too literally, or insist on it too tenaciously, grievous error will result.

Consider, for example, conspicuous consumption. All those expensive clothes and cars, those immense mansions and flamboyant parties. Are these ‘things in themselves’? Or are they symbols? And if they are symbols, what do they symbolise?

They symbolise money. When exchanging money for some priceless eye-catching trinket, we are not exchanging a store of value for the value itself. We are purchasing, among other things, a representation of our bank account. Our diamonds symbolise money, not the other way around.

Or, rather, both ways round. For money is a commodity like any other, and in the system of substitutions that is our economy, we cannot draw a boundary of essence between ‘money’ and ‘the real’. Money is not a transitional phenomenon; it cannot be factored out. The condition of possibility of money is a limitless interchangability of commodities; and this is the very condition that makes a rigorous distinction between money and non-money impossible.

This is not, to be sure, news to economists. See, for instance, chapter 21 of Keynes’s General Theory. Keynes criticises his predecessors’ tendency to treat the theory of value (real economy) and the theory of prices (money economy) in isolation from each other. And he goes on to say:

“We cannot get rid of money even by abolishing gold and silver and legal tender instruments. So long as there exists any durable asset, it is capable of possessing monetary attributes and, therefore, of giving rise to the characteristic problems of a monetary economy.”

This can be put in stronger terms: so long as there exists any durable asset, it already possesses monetary attributes. For there is nothing outside of money. (The thing itself is a dollar.)

A Derridean economics would thus find powerful allies in the economic mainstream. But I wonder how many economists have pursued Keynes’s insight to its logical conclusions. For that matter, I wonder what those logical conclusions are….

This is all a work in progress.

May 20, 2007

Keynes’s Dahlias.

Filed under: Anecdote — duncan @ 7:55 pm

It’s always interesting to know how a ruling-class family established its wealth. To find the Economic Journal quote about Neville Keynes (in the post below), I re-read the opening chapters of Robert Skidelsky’s magisterial Maynard Keynes biography. Maynard’s grandfather was a self-made man. The source of his money? Gardening. “At seventeen he won his first prize – a pair of sugar tongs – for his pinks. Determined to profit from his green fingers he gave up bristles and turned to dahlias. His one-man dahlia exhibition at Stonehenge [!] in 1841 attracted thousands. This was the start of his reputation, and the foundation of his fortune. Dahlias made him. Cleverly developing new strains, he helped promote the dahlia boom; when the dahlia bubble burst, he switched with equal success to roses. As he prospered, John Keynes diversified into banking and other commercial activities.” The family never looked back.

There are books and books to be written (I’m sure lots of them already have been) about the role of gardening in the economy of the British empire. One of these days I might get round to writing a post about Joseph Paxton, an extraordinary self-made man if ever there was one. (Check out Kate Colquhoun’s biography, ‘A Thing in Disguise’.) Much 19th century exploration was fuelled by the insatiable market for exotic plants. Men fought and died over new species of orchids. It seems a striking instance of what one is tempted to call (following Bataille) a general principle: economic activity is fuelled, not by the desire for necessities, but by the desire for luxuries. The conquistadors were searching, not for food, but for gold; and in the early nineteenth century groups of hardened men set out on perilous expeditions to collect new kinds of pine trees. Many never returned.

Friedman, Essays in Positive Economics, pages 3-7

Filed under: Economics, Friedman, Philosophy — duncan @ 7:46 pm

Milton Friedman begins his essay ‘The Methodology of Positive Economics’ on a note at once programmatic and sly. He begins by quoting Keynes. Not John Maynard Keynes… no, his father, John Neville Keynes. Neville was a well-respected Cambridge economist, a student, friend and disciple of Alfred Marshall, but he didn’t set the discipline alight. The positive reception of his book on economic method was tempered by (in the words of the Economic Journal) “a certain impatience at the continual reopening of a question on which authorities appear to be substantially… agreed.”
That was in 1891. Friedman’s quoting of Neville Keynes’ book is another reopening of the same undying question. It is polemical. By summoning the father, not the son, Friedman is saying: “We are now awakening from the Keynesian revolution, as from a bad dream. Even the word ‘Keynes’ will be reclaimed for theories I endorse; it will be taken from the left, taken from “a somewhat comprehensive socialisation” (General Theory, p. 378), and returned to “positive”, classical, (or neo-classical) economics.” The Keynesian revolution was, among other things, a patricide. Maynard Keynes’s contempt for the classical school was mostly directed at the big hitters of that tradition: Ricardo, Pigou, Marshall. But Keynes’s father can hardly have escaped those blows. When the son is killed, the father can be resurrected.

I have an almost frightening sense of deja-vu as I read these pages of Friedman. I know this world; I know these arguments; I know these rhetorical tricks. It is the world of analytic philosophy. More than that: it is the world of strongly positivist analytic philosophy. Has Friedman been reading Carnap? He gives no philosophical references for his claims, but listen:
“The ultimate goal of a positive science is the development of a ‘theory’ or ‘hypothesis’ that yields valid and meaningful (i.e., not truistic) predictions about phenomena not yet observed. Such a theory is, in general, a complex intermixture of two elements. In part, it is a ‘language’ designed to promote ‘systematic and organized methods of reasoning’ [he’s quoting Marshall]. In part, it is a body of substantive hypotheses designed to abstract essential features of complex reality.
Viewed as a language, theory has no substantive content; it is a set of tautologies. … [Its usefulness] depends partly on logical, partly on factual considerations. The canons of formal logic alone can show whether a particular language is complete and consistent, that is, whether propositions in the language are ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ [unless he thinks that truth is an entirely formal concept (which he can’t), he must mean “whether analytic propositions…”] Factual evidence alone can show whether the categories of the ‘analytical filing system’ have a meaningful empirical counterpart, that is, whether they are useful in analyzing a particular class of concrete problems.”
Yes, we’ve heard it all before. It’s logical positivism; it’s early analytic empiricism; it’s widespread, sure, but that doesn’t mean it’s right. Keynes (the son) wrote, in one of his most famous aphorisms: “Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.” And economists, who believe themselves to be paragons of intellectual independence, are usually the slaves of some defunct philosopher. Friedman’s essay on method was published in 1953. So he can’t be blamed for not having read Quine’s ‘Two Dogmas of Empiricism’, published 1961. But by the time Friedman’s ideas became widely accepted, within the academy and, still more, by policy-makers, the philosophical ideas he was deploying had been largely exploded – or at least pervasively rejected – within the community of professional philosophers. I’m sure that most economists read Friedman’s lines without much knowledge of the powerful arguments that have been deployed against them.
Quine’s ‘Two Dogmas’ is arguably the most influential article ever published in the analytic tradition. Its central claim is that there is no fundamental difference between analytic and synthetic statements. (That is, between tautologous statements and statements the truth of which is dependent on experience). No proposition, Quine writes, is so fundamental to the constitution of a system of thought that it cannot in principle be subject to revision in the light of experience. Similarly (though Quine places less emphasis on this point) no proposition is so closely bound to experience that it cannot in principle be maintained in the light of any and all evidence, provided we are prepared to make sufficiently substantial changes in the rest of our system of thought.
No claim in analytic philosophy has provoked so much debate. The arguments go on, over the meaning, implications and validity of Quine’s ideas. For myself, I have an almost limitless set of objections to Quine – but on this, I’m with him. My main criticism of Quine is that he refuses to pursue the implications of his own most famous idea.
That will have to wait for another time (or not). The point here is that Friedman’s methodological claims are (so far) highly dubious. Further: he is not actually engaging in economics – except to the extent that all economics always involves philosophy. He is philosophising covertly, without giving his reasons, and without giving his sources.

Project for an infinite synthesising intelligence: trace the intellectual, cultural, (even) economic forces that generate these parallels. Oh! There’s so much to think and say. But one has to start somewhere. Tomorrow, then, or some time soon, we’ll move on to the fact/value distinction, beloved of positivists everywhere, and the basis for Friedman’s whole division between ‘positive’ and ‘normative’ economics.

This thing will run and run.

An Intruder.

Filed under: Uncategorized — duncan @ 5:40 pm

I got back from the launderette, to find an intruder in my flat.

The intruder was sitting in the comfy chair, drinking a glass of wine, and leafing through my copy of the latest ‘Radical Philosophy’. When I put down my laundry, he looked up.

“There you are,” said the intruder. “I thought you’d got lost.”

The intruder was a middle aged gentleman, with streaks of grey in his dark hair. He wore a goatee, and he had an agreeable ironic smile on his lips. It was impossible not to like the intruder, but it was also impossible to believe he had too many scruples. He was the sort of man it would be very pleasant to play a game of cards with, provided the stakes were not too high. He wore an expensive suit, but on inspection this suit turned out to be a little shabby, and his shoes were scuffed. He looked like someone who had once had a promising career in the city. But now he could no longer hope for promotion, and he had let himself go to seed. On the middle finger of his right hand there was displayed a massive gold ring with an inexpensive opal. He watched me with humorous eyes, enjoying my consternation.

“Um… forgive me.” I said. “I wasn’t expecting…”

“I’m a friend of Richard’s downstairs,” explained the intruder. “I was going to visit him, but he’s not at home, so I thought I’d drop by and see you.”

“Listen,” I said. “Um…” 

 “What is this magazine?” asked the intruder, holding up my copy of ‘Radical Philosophy’.

“It’s a journal of socialist and feminist philosophy,” I said. “It carries a mixture of articles, commentary, and book reviews. For instance…”

The intruder began reading from the contents list. “Making Progress on Climate Change… The Promise of Justice… Queer Phenomenology.”  He didn’t look impressed.  “Who’s Adorno?”

”He was a cultural critic and philosopher,” I said, wishing I knew more about Adorno. “Author of ‘Dialectic of the Enlightenment’, he…”

But the intruder cut me short, with a contemptuous wave of his hand. He dropped the magazine to the floor. He snorted up air through his flared nostrils, and fixed me with his gaze.

“I’ve been reading your blog,” said the intruder.

”Oh!” I said. “How nice. It is good to have readers…”

“It’s shit,” said the intruder.

”You should leave a comment,” I said. “It’s always nice to get a debate started…”

“I know your kind,” said the intruder. “Liberal hand-wringers. Leftist polemicists. Gesture politics, meaningless dissent.”

“I see,” I said. “I think I understand where you’re coming from. In fact…”

“You whinge about Iraq,” said the intruder. “You whinge about the brutality of Empire. But where do you think you’d be without such violence?” He ground his fist into his hand. “You profit from violence, but you won’t endorse it. Hypocritical prick…”

The intruder’s eyes flashed. His eyebrows arched. I noticed that the intruder’s ears were not altogether solid. I could see the back of the chair through the intruder’s jaw. The intruder was translucent.

“Mind if I smoke?” said the intruder.

”Well,” I said, “I usually try not…”

But the intruder lit a cigarette. Smoke billowed out from his nostrils. It roared through his teeth. Inside the intruder’s chest, smoke circulated.

“I was there when Churchill fought in Africa”, the intruder said. “I was there when he bombed Dresden. I remember the fire. The ashes. And Nagasaki!” The intruder laughed, remembering good times. “That was real violence. You people have lost the art.”

I began to get an inkling of who the intruder was. I looked over his shabby clothes. It was a long time since I’d read ‘The Brothers Karamazov’, but various parallels were suggesting themselves.

“Listen,” I said . (I wanted to put my side across.) “It’s true that violence is everywhere. But that doesn’t mean we have to endorse it. There’s a memorable thing that Derrida once wrote…”

But I felt the words fall away from my chest. I felt grace drain out of my body. My soul, a heavy clammy thing, sat on the base of my stomach. I wanted to vomit.

“Don’t give me your excuses,” said the intruder. “Look.”

I saw certain scenes from history. Crimes from which my family had profited; murders they committed. I saw the rapes without which my bloodline would have died. I saw various animals, my great grandparents, kill rivals with their teeth. I saw all the food that has ever entered my body, the human and animal lives ground up to give me sustenance. I saw the people I myself had hurt, and am hurting now.

When I came to, I was lying on the couch. The intruder was standing over me. He was playing with his lighter.

“Who are you?” I said.

”I’m your guardian angel,” said the intruder. “You’ll call on me when you’re in need.”

I tried to muster my resources. But while I was thinking, the intruder disappeared.  I checked the bathroom and the toilet, but he was altogether gone.  He’d even washed up his wine glass.

More to follow on this (and apologies to Dostoevsky).

May 19, 2007

Young Churchill

Filed under: Anecdote — duncan @ 7:47 pm

So I’ve just started reading the Roy Jenkins biography of Churchill. Highly recommended: it’s a hoot. I had no idea how adventurous his early life was. It turns out the young Churchill was determined to fight in as many conflicts as he could. He rushed to India as soon as possible, to oppress the populace. But apparently you needed to be independently wealthy to be an even medium-ranking military figure – at least you did if you lived as extravagant a life as Churchill. So he supported his escapades by working as a journalist. Churchill’s mum back in London was a famously promiscuous society beauty. She would pull strings so her son could do more or less what he wanted. As soon as some new conflict erupted, Churchill would abandon whatever post he held, and get the nearest train or ocean liner, often travelling for weeks in appalling conditions. He spent the time in transit writing: letters, articles, non-fiction books, a novel. On his occasional trips back to London he would hand in his latest manuscript, get a bidding war started, then dash off to further adventures. He would blag his way to the front line and, with tremendous physical courage, participate in whatever brutality was being perpetrated.

In 1899 he was in South Africa; the armoured train he was travelling in was derailed by the Boers. Churchill “established a fine morale-boosting ascendancy over the lightly wounded and anxious-to-flee engine-driver, persuading him to resume the controls”. Helping the wounded escape, Churchill remained with the derailed trucks and was captured. (“I thought I could kill this man, and after the treatment I had received I earnestly desired to do so. I put my hand to my belt, the pistol was not there.”) Anxious to be released, Churchill claimed, ridiculously, to be a non-combatant. (“I have consistently adhered to my character as a press representative, taking no part in the defence of the armoured train and being quite unarmed.”) Simultaneously, he lobbied the British military to be sure to count him as a full soldier, in case there was an exchange of prisoners. And while pursuing these avenues, he also cooked up an escape plan. Churchill and two fellow prisoners “would overpower the thirty rather dozy police guards, seize their arms, hurry to the race-course, do the same thing there, release the 2,000 other-rank British prisoners and with this sizeable force take over the whole capital city, incarcerate the Kruger government, and hold out for weeks or months, maybe long enough to bring the war to an end.” (Churchill devotes five pages to the plan in his autobiography). Churchill’s killjoy friends talked him out of the plan. Instead they formulated a more modest scheme for the three of them to escape by climbing over the fence. But this was postponed; the time was not ripe. Churchill was not a patient man. He abandoned his fellow plotters, earning their undying bitterness, and escaped on his own. Speaking neither Afrikaans nor Kaffir, he managed to travel the several hundred miles to Lourenco Marques. “He wore a brown suit and a slouch hat, and hoped that if he walked with confidence he would be unchallenged. His audacity paid.” Hiding out in a goods-train, Churchill made it to “a colliery with substantial outbuildings.” Needing food and shelter, he decided to ask for help. This was extraordinarily risky. “He knocked at a door… The man who sleepily answered was an English mine manager named John Howard.” Howard took him in, fed him, supplied him with “whisky and cigars”, then hid him down a mine shaft, “where he remained, accompanied by a troop of rats but well provendered, for several days until the excitement… appeared to be abating.” Then Howard hid him in another train, which carried him to safety. “He… immediately found himself a figure of world fame.”

And these are just the highlights. He’s only just turned 26! Surely nothing else this dramatic can happen in his life. (What’s he famous for, this ‘Churchill’, anyway?)

May 17, 2007

Murdoch and Dow Jones. The Pleasure Principle.

Filed under: Media, Sarcasm — duncan @ 7:08 pm

Now if I’m not very careful, this entire blog could degenerate into an interminable, underinformed, sceptical exegesis of The Economist magazine. Every week I buy it; every week I read it; every week I am gripped and appalled. I will try to limit myself, ration myself, impose guidelines, restraints, obligations. I will try not to let the free market of my soul supply its own demand. But it’s difficult.

In the May 5th edition, for instance, The Economist had a couple of articles about Murdoch’s bid for Dow Jones: a leader, arguing that “Murdoch would make a decent owner of the Wall Street Journal”, and a longer article in the business pages, asking why he would even want it. (Conclusion: either he’s got something up his sleeve that we don’t know about, possibly involving ‘new media’, or he’s an out-of-touch old man who wants to own a serious financial newspaper to augment his reputation. Or both.)

Here’s the leader: “There is a charming irony in the idea of Mr Murdoch’s many critics rushing to the defence of the Wall Street Journal. Its opinion pages are home to a brand of conservative commentary that makes Mr Murdoch’s natural enemies wince. Yet as evidence of Mr Murdoch’s baleful influence, the worriers can point to the Sun and the New York Post, two exultantly bullying tabloids; to the populism of the Times in Britain; to the dumping of a book that might have offended China; and, most controversially, to the pro-Republican Fox News, whose motto (“We report. You decide.”) is about as convincing as an anchorman’s suntan.”

Now the Economist is well informed, intelligent, internationalist. Because it’s a weekly, it’s able to take a broad enough perspective to give some context to its reporting; but it’s also able to respond to unfolding events. Much of the time it’s smart and balanced enough that the flaws behind its editorial positions take some effort to think through. But sometimes its insane logic comes screaming to the surface. Sometimes The Economist blows its cover.

“The second reason to welcome, rather than fear, Mr Murdoch’s approach is that he is a brilliant businessman. Good businessmen make companies flourish. Flourishing companies have a better chance of making a good product and selling it to a lot of people. The Times may have shuffled downmarket since the days of Mr Murdoch’s predecessors; but it is still a good newspaper, and many more people buy it these days than when it did not stoop to celebrity news.”

Do equivocations come any cruder than this? One piece of evidence for Mr Murdoch’s baleful influence is the Times’ populism. But that’s okay – because its populism is popular. The Times may have shuffled downmarket, and become a worse newspaper. But because it has moved downmarket it sells more copies. It is flourishing; and flourishing companies have a better chance of making a good product. So: the fact that the Times is now worse means that it is now able to be better.

Has the Economist gone mad? Does it suffer from hysterical symptoms? Is it a neurotic? Or is this editorial the first sign of the onset of psychosis – complete severance from reality; total dissociation of belief from evidence? If we were to psychoanalyse the Economist, what would it confess?

I sometimes find it helpful to consider the press from the perspective of Freudianism. All magazines and newspapers are governed by the relationship between the pleasure principle and the reality principle. (Yes, like all the concepts in Freud’s system, that of the pleasure principle is divided. On the one hand – there is nothing outside it. On the other hand, the pleasure principle only has meaning in relation to its antithesis: the forces of displeasure that Freud calls, at times, anxiety, and at times Thanatos. Let’s ignore all that.)

In the conceptual organs of the press, experience takes the form of ‘News’. The function of the press is to transmute the influx of News into a form that gives maximum pleasure to the consumer. Sometimes this is easy: the news is good. Sometimes it’s even easier: the news is bad in a satisfying and enjoyable way. (The Daily Express’s continuing coverage of Diana’s death seems a text-book case of repetition compulsion).

But the most efficient way of transmuting news into pleasure is simply to deny the existence of unpleasant News. This is repression, and it has its corollary – the return of the repressed. Hysterical symptoms are generated when the affect associated with a repressed experience is redirected towards a proxy. (Asylum seekers; paedophiles; the EU). This proxy will carry an emotional charge out of all proportion to its apparent importance.

But here the reality principle rears its head. Since our pleasure is dependent on circumstances in the world, a complete rejection of the unpleasant facts of experience will, in the long run, lead to much greater unpleasure than that created by the initial experience. The pleasure principle thus learns to moderate itself, accepting pain now for pleasure later. The pleasure principle accommodates itself to the reality principle – the agent of the world.

This is the function of reporting. In this schema, reporting represents the reality principle in newspapers. Blogs like this are almost pure pleasure (with perhaps the occasional piece of disproportionate affect). The same goes for celebrity gossip, in which, as the Economist says, whether the stories are true or not doesn’t matter in the slightest. This is the realm of phantasy; dream; wish-fulfilment.

Murdoch’s populism is based in this world of wish-fulfilment – whether through Page Three girls, celebrity gossip, or Bill O’Reilly. The fear for The Wall Street Journal is that Murdoch’s smart-business emphasis on phantasy will undermine the reality-principle of good old fashioned reporting.

But we needn’t worry.

“It does not matter terribly to readers if the gossip about celebrities is true or exaggerated – indeed, when it comes to titillation, there is much to be said for falsehood. [Pure dominance of the pleasure principle; sexual phantasy unmediated by any reality.] But financial news that is untrustworthy is useless. When readers do deals based on financial-news reports, they expect the information to be accurate, down to the last detail. [For the reader of a financial paper already has her pleasure cathected in real-world objects: literal investments. The pleasure principle is thus served by maximum attentiveness to the real world.] If Mr Murdoch gets hold of the Journal, he will ensure that its reporting is excellent not out of altruism, but because, in the financial newspaper business, that is how you make money. [Murdoch too derives his pleasure from his income, and thus requires some contact with reality.]”

But what governs the relationship between the reality principle and the pleasure principle here? What dictates how far reality is permitted to make inroads into pure phantasy?

It is only beneficial to take account of reality if one’s accommodation of reality has a good chance of materially increasing one’s pleasure. The more one is in control of one’s own destiny – that is, the more power one has – the more beneficial the accommodation of reality will be. Therefore, in the press, the relation between reality and pleasure principles is determined by class.

Murdoch’s populism is directed, above all, at the (relatively) powerless: those who don’t need facts about the world, because knowledge of the facts won’t make any material difference to their lives. Readers of the Wall Street Journal and the Economist, on the other hand, need to be in touch with political and economic reality, because the manipulation of the world described in newspapers is the source of their income. They need to know about the sources of their treasure and slaves.

Phantasy has not been banished, however. Wish-fulfilment still has force. The Wall Street Journal’s readers are ambivalent: they don’t just want to exploit the world’s poor – they want to feel good about doing so.

The Economist, and publications like it, have their own form of populism. Not a populism directed at the masses, but at the Economist’s own niche audience: the wealthy business classes who want to reassure themselves that their rapaciousness will, in the long run, bring peace and joy to the earth.

Often the Economist can make this phantastical agenda convincing; it is a master at integrating reportage with ideology. But in the battle between phantasy and reality – reality will have to go.

So: Murdoch lies to get audiences. The Economist defends Murdoch. This defence is a lie. It is a lie intended to get the Economist an audience. An audience of people like Murdoch.

The circle closes. The pleasure principle is victorious again. There is nothing outside of it.

That’s good economics.

Older Posts »

Blog at